In 1784 Lee Boo, a 19-year-old Pacific Islander, was brought to Britain by East India Company sailors. Boo was dressed in British clothing, taught to speak English, converted to Christianity, and then paraded around the English liberal intelligentsia as an example of a primitive being who was capable of being civilised.
Boo was one of the first examples of the “noble savage”, a term given to a trope that emerged at the time of colonialism and slavery. The phrase was used to describe a foreign person who manages to adapt to European values, and who purported to show that the brutal act of colonialism was actually a benevolent exercise, capable of refining simpletons.
Why does this matter now? Boo may have died almost three centuries ago, but when the Department for Work and Pensions is busy creating fictional characters to “prove” the benevolence of its brutal welfare cuts, the “noble savage” trope is alive and well.
In a leaflet on benefit sanctions distributed by the department, imaginary benefits claimants praised the sanctions system for motivating them to look for work. The DWP insists these stories were for “illustrative purposes only,” but their purpose is the same as the story of Boo: they imply that a systemically oppressive policy is actually justifiable because it improves a few individuals.
Never mind the wealth of evidence that coercion does not help fat people lose weight, that sanctions do not lift people out of poverty – a single public example of a reformed character negates it all. When the government, or any part of the establishment, wants to justify oppressive and callous practices, it simply trots out someone at the receiving end to gush about how grateful they are. In modern-day Britain, the “noble savage” is the benefit claimant who credits a punitive welfare system for making them a respectable member of society.
The “noble savage” is a remarkably effective trope; it uses the experience of one individual who does not believe that they are themselves oppressed as evidence that oppression does not occur at all.
It would be wrong to suggest that people who enter into this dynamic are always unwittingly manipulated – often they are active participants. In the US, the African American commentator Kevin Jackson wrote a book denouncing civil rights leaders for “race pimping” – guilt-tripping white liberals into donating money to their pet causes. He is welcomed onto right-wing TV shows for denying the existence of institutional racism.
Here’s the rub: an occasional (and sometimes fictional) member of a subordinate group may be elevated by their oppressors. They may be able to adopt the necessary behaviour and values to pass as one of the privileged. But as long as the system itself remains unchallenged, anyone who gains the approval of those in power will always be an exception. They certainly won’t be equal, and can be put back in their place at any time.
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